Saturday, December 31, 2011

Feels Ordinary

In seven hours it will be 2012 and the end of 2011. This year we have seen Harry Potter end on the big screen, allowing us readers to say a proper goodbye, and we have lost beloved authors like Diana Wynne Jones, innovators and actors to that old enemy Time.


The Vikings did not believe that Time was a man; on the contrary, they envisioned her as an old woman, one of the few warriors who could beat Thor. In return, no one could defeat Time, meaning that Thor did not lose his reputation as a god of Thunder. He then died gloriously fighting a large serpent at Ragnarok, or joining a group of superheroes on Earth. You may believe in the latter if you are a Marvel comics and movie fan.

Thor can teach us a few lessons: we shouldn't be ashamed of Time catching up to us, because it will in the end. We can only hope to do what we can with the minutes and seconds we have left, even the hours. 

Some of those minutes will be spent making mistakes, like breaking a cork while trying to open a wine bottle. Those minutes are not wasted if you take additional time to learn from your mistakes and do better in the future. The benefit of being young: you always have time to learn because Time believes in eventual wisdom. 

This is the first year in which I've felt more like an adult, even with little kid moments, because I've had to step up the plate. It's also the first year in which I've gotten straight A's in one semester and gotten universal praise of a novel-in progress. I've drawn a Halloween comic strip series that fit within October and made it as funny as possible.

None of those seconds were wasted because I kept learning. That is my resolution for tomorrow.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why How to Train Your Dragon Was a Good Movie

 Once there was a movie chosen randomly at the library. The movie started with decent animation, descended into beautiful screenshots, and exploded with story.

That movie was How to Train Your Dragon, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell. At the same library with the DVD were about five books from the series, and I had room on my library account. I read five books in two days, even with an orchestra concert in the middle of it.

I would not have done so if I hadn't seen the movie first, looked it up online, and found out about the books. In fact, I may have glazed over them while randomly picking novels off the shelves in different library sections. The reason is simple: Cowell has received less promotion in the US than some of her European counterparts like J.K. Rowling, although she is well known in the UK. Although this lack of fanfare makes her more accessible, it also makes her less well-known; I hope that last few books in the series will rectify that international slight.

Cressida Cowell wrote a blog entry about why she loved the movie adaptation of her book, and I agree with her on all of her points: all the changes were made with good reason, Toothless is adorable in both versions, Hiccup's relationship with his father is painfully realistic, and we see the beauty of Berk and Cowell's childhood in three-dimensional animation. In addition, the movie has been nominated for two Oscars and for a good reason; we have a beautiful example of storytelling that inspires the imagination's flight. I mean to explain why since it has inspired tremendous feeling in myself:

 The background music for How to Train your Dragon is epic, exploiting all potential tones through the orchestra, lending emotion that the animation can sometimes not provide. Small wonder it nearly won an Oscar, losing to the Social Network. In the beginning, the epic music may seem campy, and you are right to think so when we are introduced to Vikings and their comic brusqueness; it then becomes powerful when you see Hiccup fly on his dragon for the first time. The music continues to amplify the dramatic tension and action into the movie’s climax, where we get a giant dragon kicking Norse butt and nearly killing it. I won't say WHO the dragon is, but you will see if you nab the movie on DVD. 

     Part of the movie’s success also lies in how it handles genius. The two aspects of genius--invention and testing-- must go hand in hand when attempting to create something new. You have to take the risk and learn from your mistakes. In lesser movies, genius would be taken for granted or used to teach a lesson, as Disney attempted to in Meet the Robinsons.  Hiccup shows his strength not with his brawn, or lack of it, but rather with how he uses his brain. We see this strength in his inventions and in how he tests them. In a similar way, Hiccup uses different and meaningful words to explain why he couldn’t kill Toothless the dragon, not the usual clich├ęs associated with love or with inner morals.   

            Emotion- again, emotion drives the plot, not just action. In fact, the moviemakers want to assure the readers that one must only act if faced with a challenge, even if the challenge can be avoided or ignored. The biggest conflict between Hiccup and his father lies in how they handle such obstacles. At the same time, avoiding a necessary conflict is not a wise choice of action, even if it’s the necessary one; Hiccup learns that all too well when things explode in his face and he has to fix it. We get beautiful action scenes that accompany the emotion; the only shame is that the movie's sequels (Legend of the Boneknapper, Gift of the Night Fury) lack that similar emotional conflict.  
           Over the holidays I will be analyzing other animated movies that have won me over, and what aspects made them entertaining and deep. I may end up upsetting other people, but I don't care. These movies were fantastic, even if they don't appear so. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Don't Be Afraid to Grow Up, Young or Old

No longer being a teenager teaches you important things. For starters, there is no such thing as completely attaining maturity. And that's okay.

Second, everyone grows up, despite the Peter Pan myth and the notion of living forever. No one wants to grow old or stop loving the things they love now; think of all the people who have mid-life crises, for example, and buy Harleys. In Florida we have college Quidditch teams and recommendations for the next Game of Thrones book.

Then we have toddlers wearing high heels and posing as Julia Roberts; parents have a reason to be concerned. As noted, we can't stop getting older, but we can certainly not try to speed up the process. Maturity and actual growing will only happen if you stop and let it happen.

Some days I get frustrated because a part of me likes to slow down in the morning and read the latest library book, even when I want to beat the morning traffic and be efficient. That same part of me is the part of me that remains young, the part that allows me to make fun of myself. I can put that laziness (or appreciation for the fine arts, if we put positive spin on this habit) into my stories and create vivid, realistic characters with similar flaws. I can also use it to bond with other people who may have similar habits.

These same people share a mutual love for the same movies and music, even if these movies aren't aimed at our demographic. For example, I have memorized every song in the Little Mermaid, and I'm not ashamed of it. At the same time, I've grown out of shows like Teamo Supremo and Barney; some nostalgia doesn't last. These loves and dislikes balance out so that I will watch Wishbone and Aladdin on Youtube.

Another part of me likes career planning and being on time for school, if not for class. The two are quite different: being on time to school means finding a parking space in the closest lot, while being on time for class means beating the large grandfather clock. I admit that this is the adult side of me, because now I no longer care if I'm on time for my first class and have to relearn it with the fervency of a middle-school student. Again, I can put that in my books because I know kids who used to show up to college classes in pajamas.

Maturity happens when you have to be proactive. When I started to study marketing and aspects of business, I learned that to get any job you have to check application deadlines and meet them as early as possible. I was earlier proactive as a writer after getting disqualified from a writing contest due to a format error. (Yeah, that was not fun.) Now I revise cover letters and resumes ahead of time, much like how I revise query letters and short stories. On some level it means acknowledging that my dream of being a full-time writer may not happen for a long time, but it also means that I'm ready to rough out these years of rejection until one acceptance leads to another. I'm ready to take risks , but I'm also ready for if the risks bail on me.

I'm a young adult. People tell me I'm still young while I worry about my future, and the "adult" part of me reminds me why I should worry. Like my shoulder angel and devil, these parts of me can come into conflict. Part of the fun, however, is the bickering between them; although I may be getting older, parts of my personality will not change no matter what cynical influences appear in my life.

It's more than okay; it makes living an adventure with good and evil on your side. You get to be arbitrary about it until the odd day that maturity wins. And like all things that win, maturity will lose on the even day, but it won't give up.

Neither will you.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Getting a Glimpse of Graphic Design: Doing a Lifebushido Internship

This summer, I applied for internships, learning belatedly that you have to apply six months in advance to secure a position. I finally acquired an online one with Lifebushido; Lifebushido asks students around the world to work on social entrepreneurship businesses.

When I applied, I asked to be on a skills team since I couldn't decide on a particular project. I was assigned to work with Ashutosh Singh's team; his websites help small business owners gain a marketing presence online. These two websites were Ice Cream Cloud and Bizness Brandy; I proofread the sites and designed logos for both of them. Above is the rough logo I did for Bizness brandy; the one for Ice Cream Cloud is still being modified since I'm working with one of the team's illustrations. Once again, you did a great job Julio.

Working on these websites gave me insight into what graphic designers did as a living. Ashutosh pushed me to keep modifying the logos, changing little details to make the sum of the whole better. Writers have to do the same thing for editors, and it can take several hours to get a satisfactory prototype done. The Ice Cream Cloud one has definitely been the most difficult, mainly with creating a circular logo on Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, but I've been getting better at using Adobe Illustrator to create logos.

Thank you, Ashutosh, for making me part of your project; I hope we can work together sometimes in the future.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Two Months Later

School has started; I'm trying a semester without creative writing classes and with more violin practice. I've learned that parking next to a lake means circumnavigating around it and figuring out which location is ideal.

In my novel, I've written a "why don't you just shoot her" scenario. The scene comes from an immortal exchange between the Joker and his girlfriend, Harley Quinn:

Harley Quinn: Why don't you just shoot him [Batman]?
Joker: "Just shoot him?" Know this, my sweet: the death of Batman must be nothing less than a masterpiece! The triumph of my sheer comic genius over his ridiculous mask and gadgets!

Although the Joker is not the picturesque picture of a sympathetic villain, he has a point. In a novel where the author wants the hero to win, the villain cannot simply kill the protagonist. There has to be a cat and mouse game, a chance for the hero to fight back, and time to hold the story for a long time. In Harry Potter, for example, Voldemort has many times to kill Harry outright but gives him a chance to join him (Book One), fight back (Two and Four), or face his minions (Books Five and Seven, oh so much).

Even if the villain is utilitarian, he cannot kill the protagonist with one gunshot. I don't believe in divinity, but when you control the novel, you are its god. You control what's going on, so you have to manipulate the controls so that a fatal gunshot becomes a flesh wound, or even a swarm of bubbles. In my case, my hero's wound from being shot allows her to escape, just making the "just shoot him" scenario a "nice job fixing it, villain," since the villains are at the tether end of their sanity.

Think about this trope and use it wisely. Wizards in Harry Potter didn't have guns, after all, but they could still be dangerous.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Birthday Post: What it Means to No Longer be a Teenager

Today I'm 20. I am no longer a teenager, I have published two short stories and one gory poem since I turned fourteen.

I've learned a lot of things this year while writing. For starters, I learned that writers are constantly getting better as they keep writing and revising their work; that was an important lesson as well as a vote of confidence. I've learned that telling a story can be tiring when you treat it like a job, especially when you dedicate your time to several stories. No matter how many times you get

I'm also optimistic, however; while cleaning up my room yesterday, I found a pile of short stories that I've meant to revise. These include a titular "Ferry" with a modern twist on Greek mythology, an semi-autobiographical foray into summer driving lessons, and a novellette where a crazy Anglo-Saxon warrior chases two teenagers in the middle of Central Florida. Friends have told me how to get better and when they approve of changes. I've gained an ideal reader who can also write well, and family members who will suffer a comic strip or a short story.

I am 20 years old, but I still feel like a teenager. That's the best feeling of all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What Diana Wynne Jones Meant to Me


If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. You may have even wanted to write because of the books you read and enjoyed; this happened to me after reading Harriet the Spy, but I digress.

I deeply regret that I did not discover Diana Wynne Jones until middle school, when I found a copy of Seeing is Believing in the library and picked it up for its title. When you have stories where a girl with mumps creates a story with a bloodthirsty heroine that comes to life, a writer who finds success after getting a computer (and the customary typos), and the story of a cat who helps a stupid magician's servant, you have no choice but to find the rest of the authors' books. I discovered A Charmed Life, Dogsbody, The Homeward Bounders, and proceeded to read every book by her in both the school and public library.

Diana Wynne Jones taught me that anything can be magical, whether it's the green flakes in a chemistry kit or a Friendly Cow. She also taught me Murphy's Law for fantasy novels: anything that can go wrong with magic will, and the disasters will make you laugh. Wizards do not always appreciate people cleaning their houses for that, and they are not necessarily elderly, well-behaved gentlemen; sometimes they are angry fathers pretending to be evil magicians. Heroes won't always know who's in trouble, or how to correct their spells; sometimes you might break your neck twice and still live. Use every implement that you introduce, since golden bricks may be useful to drop on the villain's toes.
Villains can be hidden in plain sight; your parents may not be the villains, but they are certainly no help when push comes to shove. Kids have to rely on their own magical objects and abilities, even if they didn't know that they have abilities. Don't underestimate a pit of orange juice or a cocoon of bookcases if your college roommate is targeted by assassins. Also don't underestimate the insults that brothers can exchange after one decides to attend university.

Most of all, there are no formulas to follow. Jones admired Tolkien's work, but she came to mock the sword and sorcery fantasy that succeeded Lord of the Rings; that fact made me admire her the most. For the record, I tried reading Lord of the Rings twice, and I learned that there is such a thing as too much description. Not all villains are pure evil, and you shouldn't have to travel alone. There is more than one way to solve a problem, especially if you are creative; there is no need to slay dragons with swords when a hot chili pepper will do.

Rest in peace, Diana, and thank you for your writing.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reverence for Fairy Tales

To get psyched for revising the last three chapters of this fantasy novel that is a tribute to fairy tales and Daphne du Maurier, I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales from cover to cover. The edition also came with a helpful list of footnotes denoting the different version of each tale, as well as possible sources, but my real point when reading was something that every adult realizes when reading fifty to sixty short stories meant for children’s bedtime:

Most are completely ridiculous!

As mentioned in my last entry, Sarah Beth Durst has written several blog posts going through certain stories line by line and commenting on how good, bad, or horrific they were. Ms. Durst read these stories for her novel Into the Wild, in which real people have to act out fairy tales for centuries if they get caught in the titular plant growth. When the Wild gets loose, Rapunzel’s daughter Julie has to work fast to tame it before it takes over her hometown. When it gets loose again in Out of the Wild, Julie has to worry about the same problem while traveling across the US on a broomstick.

Popular culture has also caught onto the trend of mocking the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christen Andersen; Dreamworks gave us the Shrek movies, while Disney attempted a self-parody with Enchanted. Even Gail Carson Levine, whose novel Ella Enchanted was critically acclaimed and heart rendering, wrote several short novellas that parodied “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Princess and the Pea.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Ms. Durst wrote Ice, a gorgeous retelling of “The Sun, the Moon, and the North Wind” set in the Arctic Circle with polar bears, shamans, and creepy deities. Juliet Marillier gave us Wildwood Dancing, which makes “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” look sugary sweet in comparison; I would not have read it if my friend Margaret had not recommended Ms. Marillier. (Thanks, Margaret!) Walt Disney Corporation managed to infuse some of the most ridiculous tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” with lovable characters, monstrous villains, humor, and princess protagonists that did not annoy the viewer in the least.

There is a reason, however, why we feel drawn to fairy tales, whether or not we parody them or depict them in a somber light; I feel drawn to them because fairy tales were my security blanket. Azar Nafisi admitted the same thing in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: fairy tales may have happy endings, but they also have pretty monstrous obstacles. Such a structure is reflected in the best stories, whether they are complex novels or simple cartoon shorts; readers like conflict, and they like giant monsters that can be defeated.

“Cinderella,” for example, has a stepmother and two stepsisters who will do anything to keep their ash girl from being normal; the Disney version takes that dynamic to the extreme. The two girls blame Cinderella for things that go wrong, load her with work so she can’t get ready for the king’s ball, and finally rip up her handmade ball gown. The stepmother then proceeds to sabotage Cinderella’s chance of trying on the glass slipper by locking her in her room and making the slipper shatter just as she’s about to try it on. It doesn’t help that she has the scariest voice in history, and she’s pretty much what every teenage girl would not want to have: an unloving authority figure who will never give you power. On top of that, Cinderella’s father died when she was just a little girl; that is traumatic for any child, especially when the surviving parent is not sympathetic.

Most fairy tales thus, in addition to providing such an obstacle like a deal with the Devil or a toady innkeeper who keeps stealing his customers’ magical tools, add a happy ending and helpful friends to deal with the monstrous quality. Sometimes this can play for dark humor; about three or four Grimm’s fairy tales involve the hero causing an apocalypse that leaves him the sole ruler of a kingdom (seriously). Others involve the Devil getting cheated, but the hero is not allowed to enter heaven either, so they wander between heaven and hell as a restless ghost. Please note that this happens when the hero is a guy, not a girl; the girl usually marries a prince who rescues her from burning at the stake or an unhappy life with her stepsisters. The king in these stories tends to execute the stepmother and stepsisters in violent manners, so the blood and gore is still presented.

The other reverence for fairy tales that we find is that they can be easily retold, as I’ve shown with the above examples, while keeping the monstrous obstacles and happy ending. We can take out the parts we don’t like, such as Cinderella’s fairy godmother (please stop making fairy godmothers evil), and modify it to suit our needs, as Disney has done. That Grimm’s Fairytales still exists is living proof that even if we don’t like princes who kill everyone to become happy, we do like it when characters receive happy endings after traumatic experiences. We simply change the rules as we go along.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Your Dearest Reader is Important

Fiction workshop classes are very interesting if you read more than one story by a particular classmate. I tend to have high standards for fiction, but I've also learned to be nice to other writers in class. For starters, negative comments can induce writer's block, tears, and that paralyzing fear to put words to the page. Teachers also do not appreciate cutting remarks; my first creative writing teacher gave me a blunt lecture about two negative critiques I had written, and it was the best advice I had ever been given after making me cry for the rest of class. (I still love this teacher to death, and I highly recommend her if you ever take Creative Writing.)

If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. Good readers will have a perspective when reading others' comments on their writing as well as seeing what works and doesn't work with fiction. Few ideas are original; so are few techniques. You'd be surprised with how far long sentences can go when reading aloud.

Tam Lin provides the best visual example of your relationship to a fellow writer as a reader: Sarah Beth Durst has a wonderful response to the ballad, but only peruse if you need context.

In a nutshell, Janet the pregnant heroine has to hold onto Tam Lin as he changes from monster to monster; it's the only way to free him from the clutches of a murderous faerie queen.
In real life, you have to be Janet when you read someone else's story for critique. Do you have to be harsh? Sometimes, but remember that at some point your story will be the monster and may be slain quite brutally by that other person. Therefore, you also have to find some redeeming value in the story so as not to crush the writer's spirit. Someone else may crush your spirit, creating an Evil Golden Rule that you want to avoid.

One point to note: always ask to read the next draft. Your friend will appreciate it, probably read your work as it progresses from draft to draft, and improve their story for your pleasure. I have read improved second drafts because I asked for them, and I've learned what writers can do when they're given a chance to improve themselves. You can do the same if someone else gives you the chance.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Sound of Your Story


I learned several important lessons from hearing Neil Gaiman read The Graveyard Book online before the book came out. First off, an author's voice should reflect the tone of the story, and facial expressions help. (Neil Gaiman can look scary as the Man Jack.)

Neil Gaiman didn't teach me one important lesson, though: if readers like how your story sounds, if it's poetic or entertaining, they will keep reading even if they have no idea what's going on. His stories are fortunately clear, affable, and intriguing. No, I'm talking about an Ayn Rand novel about the individual and creative endurance.

I started reading The Fountainhead on a Parisian train before my brother asked for it (he had brought it, not me, for the record). I started again in my junior year of high school, and though I didn't get the parts that I liked most in the book, I kept reading them. Case in point: Dominique Francon. I didn't get why she kept trying to destroy the protagonist Howard Roark if she was in love with him. I didn't get it for two years, but I liked Dominique's voice and reread her conversations with Howard. And then I got it.

Not all of us will write clear books; clarity is my current problem. However, if a reader likes what we wrote, they will treat it like a beautiful abstraction


and then put the pieces together.

The key word is beauty. If you write a gory psychothriller, infuse it with beauty. If you write a comedic approach to war, make the images enthralling. Even if you write a nonfiction horror story, you need beauty. Know what impact your words have on the listener; study the sounds of a connotation. Make your reader laugh and cry, but also make sure they keep the book open for those moments.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Margaret Mitchell and Her Impact on America


Gone With the Wind has an interesting legacy, as does Margaret Mitchell. On one hand, we have a universally-known love story that people adore; the Berenstein Bears parodied the film while the book received a mention in the Newberry-winning Number the Stars while the protagonists were playing dolls. We all love Rhett Butler, but his flaws invigorate the story with smirks and sadness. Mitchell kept writing the book and kept it a secret, which I always admire in any writer; telling someone you write is like telling a bully where you hide your chocolates. We get a flawed protagonist who someone wins us over because we look into her head and see how she's thinking, feeling sympathy and compassion.

On the other hand, we have stereotypes enforcing the Southern status quo, where Scarlett O'Hara can justify slavery and keep girls like Prissy in their place. Every black person in the book is either stupid or evil, the Northerners walk all over everyone, and we applaud Rhett Butler when he evades execution for murdering . . . a black man for insulting a woman.

The appearance in Number the Stars is quite troubling; Lois Lowry wrote a World War II novel where the main character helps her best friend and family escape the Nazis in Denmark, a story arguing for compassion and courage. Is Gone With the Wind more interesting than pink-frosted cupcake fairy tales? Yes. If Lowry meant for the novel to reflect the time period, she reflected an uglier aspect than intended for a gentle introduction to the Holocaust. (For the record, I love Lois Lowry's books, especially The Giver; it's just this particular scene that bothers me.)

Readers still love Gone With the Wind, however, because Margaret Mitchell wrote a complex, tragic story. The movie made it more so, with fantastic actors (though to be fair, Clark Gable steals the show as Rhett) and a well-designed setting. We still love moral ambiguity and rascals with hearts of . . . well, silver. And we love a romance where the characters don't have predictable chemistry.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rudyard Kipling in Retrospect:

Schools should study Rudyard Kipling more, especially when covering British literature. Neil Gaiman mentions that the original Jungle Book influenced The Graveyard Book strongly, and even Robin McKinley has her title character from Beauty reading Kim in a library with books that haven't been written yet. No mention that Rudyard Kipling wrote about India with affection from the perspective of an English imperialist, yet he was a great writer of his time. Raised in what he considered the mother country, he nevertheless soon came to live in both England and the United States for short periods of time.

What I admire

His courage- Kipling knew he wanted to be a writer when he graduated from school. His family encouraged him, and he took on as many journalist opportunities as possible to support himself while working on his book. He was quite willing to live on a few pennies a day and risk bankruptcy. Even after he was published, Kipling wrote what he wanted despite the criticism he received; he believed in himself, whether writing a propaganda piece for an unpopular war or a series of schoolboy adventures.

His view of human nature- Kipling's best works are when he shows people as people, faults and all. In his autobiography he includes a short story based on abuses he had suffered as a child, which immunized him for life from suffering. This is also prominent in The Jungle Book and in fact the reason I couldn't read the story as a child. I grew up on the Disney version where the tiger didn't get his own back until the end- and in the first chapter of the Jungle Book Shere Khan convinces the wolves to kick Mowgli out of the pack. Harsh indeed, and harsher when Mowgli learns to become a man in the local village and gets kicked out on charges of sorcery. The story nails human nature at its worst; never fear, though, because Kipling also captures human behavior at its best when talking of Mowgli's human mother and how she eventually helps him return to mankind (seen in The Second Jungle Book).

What I Dislike

Kipling's Benevolent Portrayal of Englishmen in Comparison to Indians. This happens a lot; remember how I mentioned that Kipling nailed human nature? In The Jungle Book, he applies the good and the bad to every human and animal except the off screen Englishmen. The off screen Englishmen are honorable gents who would never tolerate an angry mob when facing a feral child. I mean, seriously; consider the English witch hunts and immigration into the New World.

Using the "n" word to describe an Indian- Happens in Kim with a British soldier describing the Indians they're ruling over; at that point I stopped reading the book. Once again, seriously? If Mark Twain cannot use the "n" word as a non-offensive common way to describe black men, then neither can Kipling. That is fairness.

Authors are people and are thus complex. You cannot simply label them as good or bad because they use racist terms or come from imperialistic perspectives. You cannot thus censor their books out of context, although the idea is tempting. Was Rudyard Kipling more racist than Mark Twain? Yes, because of his attitude about native Indians and applying the worst of human nature to them. I am prejudiced because I am Indian and feel that these are personal attacks, but I can also admire an author who knew what he wanted and did all he could to get it in the world of literature.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Great Literary MacGuffins, Part Two: More Great Examples

What other titles out there capture the essence of the book with one powerful noun and a few adjectives? Let's see . . .One of the best Harry Potter books of the series, and it's not hard to see why. The Chamber of Secrets becomes the Literary MacGuffin as the Heir to Slytherin uses it to petrify Muggle-born students, a ghost and a cat. Harry, already suspected of being the Heir, investigates the real attacker's identity while fending off a house elf's attempts to "save his life." I love how the American cover illustrates the climatic scene, where Fawkes carries Harry, Ginny, Ron and Lockhart out of the Chamber, because it's vivid and colorful. Chamber of Secrets may not be warm and fuzzy, but it needed a happy cover.
Come to think of it, the best Harry Potter books have the best Literary MacGuffins in the title. Deathly Hallows didn't work for me because the search for Hallows fell back when Harry, Ron and Hermione had to search for Horcruxes, BUT Goblet of Fire remains my favorite book in the series, partly because the question "Who put Harry's name in the Goblet of Fire?" drives the book despite its many subplots. We learn in the end how the Goblet connects these subplots together, but I digress. Another great Literary MacGuffin for the charts...

Anyone who has not read this book or seen the movie with AnaSophia Rob and Josh Hutcherson needs to CHECK EITHER OUT IMMEDIATELY! Aside from being a beautifully written and bittersweet story, the title makes you wonder "What is Terabithia? What is the bridge there?" Terabithia, the fictional country that Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke create to deal with the real world's hassles like bullies and mean teachers. Leslie gets picked on because she doesn't have a TV, and Jesse has to hide his fantastic drawings from his frugal, practical family. Terabithia becomes prevalent throughout the book as Jesse and Leslie's fortress and becomes the climatic focus when tragedy hits home- a surprise that snaps you out of the fantasy this novel has created. But you get reeled back into the fantasy, fortunately, once Jesse figures out how to revive it. I know only one person who didn't cry when reading this, so be prepared with tissues when you start reading.

PLEASE Don't Censor Mark Twain!

This recent controversy over taking the "n"-word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has upset some, even though the book has upset several generations of American teachers for including the word while appealing for slaves' humanity. The teachers worry because Huckleberry Finn is a great book, an American classic, AND a book by one of the best American writers, so it has to be taught in school.


Mark Twain (Real name Samuel Clemens) was probably the mildest famous author from the nineteenth century in terms of race, except for Harriet Beecher Stowe. Huckleberry Finn is great because it covers the moral ambiguity that troubles American society; a boy fights standards ingrained from birth to save a friend's life at the cost of his integrity.

Next post will be about authors that I consider far more racist than Twain, who must not be censored. Ever.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Righteous Fury: Short Comment on the UCF cheating

The original paragraphs I had for the post on UCF got swallowed up by let me comment briefly and relate it to literature somehow.

For a bit of context, a business professor accused 200 of his students of cheating on an exam . The students retaliated by posting the lecture on YouTube with their subtitles and a defense: Professor Quinn had used the textbook publisher's exam as his template, and the students had not known they were cheating. The debate has exploded on national television, with some of the major new outlets siding with Professor Quinn.

I side with the students on this issue, though I understand Professor Quinn's frustration. Education may be a privilege, but you have to rear it like a child: sometimes it refuses to comply to your need for a GPA above 3 points. Most of us work our butts off to pass our classes while trying to learn the subject matter. I preferred to learn, but grades measure our learning. And then someone CHEATS and surpasses all the hard-workers, including the professors who once had to work their butts off? No wonder the administration hates students who take the shortcut.

All the good teachers I've had in school believe in elbow grease. An art professor who gave me a B (and fairly enough because I didn't put in my best effort) warned us that he knew when students didn't hand in their own work. My high school economic teacher was head of the Honor Council AND the Social Studies department; she made us work hard, but we all got high scores on the AP Economics exam.

Something else all my good teachers believed in: courtesy. If they lost their tempers, we accepted it in grace and tried to learn from it. If we disagreed with them, we were allowed to bring it up in class, and we allowed them to shoot us down or apologize when we were right. I did a three-part blog post about the importance of courtesy when writing; ideally, we would apply that same courtesy to real life.

As several news outlets have noted, technology has stretched into grey areas where "cheating" and "information exchange" are concerned; students got furious when they perceived Professor Quinn as a hypocrite, since he hadn't made up his own exam. But could they have handled it better? Let's see . . .

Posting a YouTube video of the infamous lecture with subtitles of the students' counter-argument? Effective, but the video was filled with typos. Normally I wouldn't care, but writers never get published if their work is filled with typos and grammatical errors, and I'm a stickler about this sort of things. The students had made their point, but missing apostrophes don't help your cause.

An article in the student newspaper about "confronting" Professor Quinn, with students in the comments calling him "lazy"? I understand your point, but your enemy isn't a serial killer with a chainsaw and a hook.


Treat him objectively, and let him give his side of the story. Asking him loaded questions will support your view, but it won't give you the truth, or even his version of the truth.

But Professor Quinn is also at fault. While offering clemency to the accused, he not only forced every student to retake the exam, including the 400 who "did not cheat" but also refused to comment for student press. Professor Quinn has, in a nutshell, burned his bridges with the students as well as the student body by not offering his opinion to the newspaper or being gracious in the face of pressure. Teachers make mistakes, and they're not politicians; any administration that fires someone over a misunderstanding is a narrow-minded administration.

I'm also disappointed with Quinn's supporters; they claim that moral standards have lapsed in the twenty-first century. First off, while everyone doesn't cheat, there will always be people in the world searching for dirty shortcuts. College students have NOT become miscreants, and it's not fair to accuse the hard working of moral lapses. Lapses in work ethic, yes, especially in the age of consumerism. Lapses in working under pressure, yes. But lapses in MORALITY? Not only does that hurt, but we're the generation that has to handle potential ecological damage and political incompetence. I may not be planning to build efficient solar energy, but I know that I will do SOMETHING. I may have a heart turning into stone, but I have values.

I will treat you with courtesy because I believe in being nice, but do not think I am a selfish waif because of my age, or the technological era I belong to. I am not representative of my generation, and my generation does not represent me. I do not cheat. I procrastinate, yes, I may drink coffee and eat peanut butter when stressed, I may enjoy writing horror stories, I may text my friends, but I do not plagiarize. I cite my sources.

I am a writer. I am an artist. And I am a college student.